This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
Unflattering online photos can have a huge impact on your career and your personal life.
Perhaps you’re dealing with a photo that is innocent but misinterpreted. Or maybe someone has posted something maliciously to tarnish your reputation. Either way, there are steps you can take to have these photos removed or suppressed.
The specific approach that will work for you depends a lot on your situation. In this guide, we’ll go over the types of online photo issues people have and the strategies for dealing with each.
Table of contents
How embarrassing photos happen
Sometimes unflattering photos are embarrassing on their face, and sometimes the photos are problematic because the context gets lost and people misinterpret them. It’s not always possible to predict whether a photo might come back to haunt you later on.
Yes, you can try to be careful about what types of photos you appear in, but it’s not always possible to control every situation. Consider the following examples. Virtually anyone can get caught unaware by an embarrassing online photo.
Small mistake, big backlash. In 2012, a woman took a photo of herself making obscene gestures in front of a “silence and respect” sign at the Arlington National Cemetery. It was a joke in poor taste, but she didn’t mean it to be disrespectful. After she posted it to her friends on Facebook, the image went viral and brought on a national media storm that cost her her job and made her virtually unemployable for several years. Yes, she made a mistake, but losing her livelihood for years is an extremely high price to pay for a momentary lapse in judgment.
Professionalism questioned. A number of teachers have lost or almost lost their jobs over photos they didn’t even think were problematic. In one case, a woman under the age of 21 got in trouble for posting a photo of herself drinking during a European vacation, in a country where she was of legal drinking age. In another case, a teacher who did bodybuilding as a hobby was reprimanded for the bikini photos she posted online. Turning to a different profession, in 2015 a newly hired airline attendant almost lost her job for having her photo taken in front of a jet engine—a practice that is common among flight crews but that was misinterpreted by a passenger on another flight, who then complained.
Misinterpreted photo goes viral. In 2012, a Taiwanese model took a photoshoot job. The image was modified after the fact, paired with a questionable slogan about infidelity, and used to advertise a cosmetic surgery business. People misinterpreted the image, thinking that she had cheated on her husband. The image was turned into a meme that went viral and ruined her career. It took her three years to make any progress at getting the photo out of circulation.
Photos used to harass or embarrass. Some of the most pernicious online photos are nudes posted without the consent of the person in the photo, a practice called revenge porn. There are also more subtle cases of photo harassment, where images that might be incendiary or misleading are posted to damage someone’s reputation. Teenage cyberbullies often use these types of photographs to attack their targets.
Algorithmic image prioritization. Lives change, and sometimes images that represented you well in the past no longer do. But if people continue clicking on those images, they will continue to appear in your search results, often very prominently. Worse yet, photos that have nothing to do with you can get connected to your name due to erroneous tagging, similar facial features, or any number of reasons.
Taking down embarrassing photos
There are a number of different ways of combatting online photos, depending on the nature of the photo, where it is posted, and who did the posting. We’ll go over each of these methods below.
Filing social media removal requests
If an embarrassing photo has been posted to social media, there are steps you can take to have it flagged and removed. However, you’ll usually be required to do a bit of legwork first.
Facebook. You can ask Facebook to remove photos for you, but only if the photos violate their terms of service. These terms are complicated, but generally they boil down to cases where your privacy is violated, laws are broken, or sensitive information is disclosed. If any of these situations apply to you, click on the “options” button for the photo and then “report photo.” Facebook will ask you some questions to determine if you actually have what they consider to be a valid complaint.
If you don’t meet Facebook’s criteria, all is not lost. Facebook will suggest that you send a removal request to the poster and provide you with a sample message. This text has been carefully designed and tested for maximum impact, and studies conducted by Facebook show that simply asking the poster to remove an embarrassing photo often works because your friends might not have realized that the photo is embarrassing to you.
finally, if your removal request fails, you can minimize the spread of the photo by untagging yourself in it. The photo won’t go away, but people won’t find it when they’re searching for you.
Twitter. Twitter will remove tweets that are abusive according to their terms of service. Generally speaking, abusive means tweets that are intended to be harassing or intimidating, or that feature nudity or copyright violations. If someone is tweeting photos in this way, you can click on the three dots icon next to the tweet and report it. Twitter will ask you a few questions regarding the nature of the tweet to determine the validity of your request.
Instagram. The process for reporting abusive photos on Instagram is similar to Twitter. After clicking on the “report” button, you will need to demonstrate that the photo is being used to harass or intimidate you.
Pinterest. Pinterest prohibits the pinning of certain types of photos, including pornography, sensitive information, hate speech, and images that bully or harass. If any of these apply to the photos in question, you can click the three dots icon on the pin and report it. However, don’t overuse this feature. If Pinterest finds that you repeatedly report images that are not violations of their terms, they will ignore future reports.
Filing copyright infringement notices
If you own the copyright to the embarrassing photo, you can file a copyright infringement notice to get it removed. You don’t have to have registered your copyright to do this, though you’ll have more legal options if you do. (For specific legal advice, it’s best to consult a lawyer, though there are a few do-it-yourself options you can try. Note that the following information does not constitute formal legal advice and is merely educational.)
Determining copyright ownership. In most cases, the person who takes the photo owns the copyright, unless s/he entered into a contract that assigns the copyright to someone else (often called “work for hire”). The person shown in the photo generally does not have any copyright claims to the photo. If you take a photo, then you own the copyright whether you register it or not, and it can only be assigned to someone else through a legal contract.
Filing a DMCA takedown notice. The traditional method of contesting copyright infringement is drawn-out, expensive, and time consuming. However, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 provides a method for getting online content providers to quickly take down material that violates copyright, and these DMCA takedown requests can be generated without the help of a lawyer. Do not make false claims of copyright infringement. If you don’t own the copyright, there can be legal penalties for filing false or misleading claims.
Most legitimate photo-sharing and social media sites have built-in tools for processing DMCA takedown requests. In these cases, simply fill out the form and follow instructions. Here are links to some of them:
If the photo is hosted on a blog or private website, then you will need to do a bit more sleuthing and draft your own DMCA notice. You’ll be sending this notice to the company that is hosting the material, not to the person who posted the photo. Here are the steps involved:
- Start by finding out who hosts the website. You can usually do this by using an online WhoIs tool, like whois.icann.org
- Look for the abuse contact address
- Prepare the DMCA notice, which is just a letter that includes:
- Identification of the infringing item (titles, filenames, URLs)
- A statement that you have a good faith belief that the material is being used in an unauthorized way
- A statement that the information you are providing is correct, and that you are authorized to submit this request
- Your contact information and signature
- Send your DMCA notice to the host, using the abuse contact address
Fighting revenge porn
In years past, if you were victimized by revenge porn and did not own the copyright on the photos, the legal options were discouragingly thin.
Thankfully, some states have started to introduce laws to give more protections to victims. To date, 26 states have such laws on the books. The details are too numerous to list here, but you can view them at endrevengeporn.org.
In addition, the California Office of the Attorney General has put together a comprehensive resource portal to help revenge porn victims, including the steps necessary to get images removed from numerous sites.
Per the Attorney General’s site, the four things to do when you discover you’ve become a victim of revenge porn are:
- Preserve the evidence you find by taking screenshots, saving texts and webpages, and logging any emails
- Set up search engine alerts for your name and the materials you’ve found
- Talk to a criminal lawyer about your options
- Go through the removal process for any hosts listed on the site
Fighting online harassment or cyberbullying
If someone is posting photos as a way to harass you, you have legal recourses that can lead to the photos being taken down.
First of all, regardless of how the harassment is happening, follow these guidelines to maximize your chances of success:
- Don’t respond. Any communications you send to the perpetrator could be turned against you, or they may add fuel to the fire. Similarly, don’t draw attention to the issue by forwarding people to the negative photos.
- Keep evidence. You’ll want to take screenshots, save emails, record dates and times—you want a record of anything related to the incident.
Next, file a complaint with the relevant source:
- Social media sites. Cyberbullying is usually against their terms of service, and you can report the abuse directly to them.
- Schools. If the harassment is related to a child’s school, contact the administrators and provide them with information on the situation.
- Law enforcement. Any type of serious harassment should be reported to the police, especially if you’ve experienced threats of violence, stalking, or violations of privacy.
Burying images you can’t delete
Sometimes the scenarios above don’t apply. Maybe you’ve got unflattering images in your search results thanks to a prominent news article. Maybe a negative photo has gone viral and is posted on a wide range of sites, some of them on servers in countries that don’t respond to legal takedown requests.
If deletion is not an option, your best bet is to try to bury the photos, making them less likely to be seen.
Essentially, your goal is to give as many clear signals as possible that the photos you like are about you, and that the sources of information that refer to those photos are the most important ones. This signaling will push down unwanted photos, replacing them with more favorable materials.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
Publish diversified content. Search engines like to show a variety of materials, so you’ll want to create as many competing sources of information about you as possible: blog articles, business websites, social media, videos—anything you can think of. Publish text, videos, and lots of images. The broader the range of materials, the better.
Choose good photo filenames and alt tags. For any photo you post online, use a filename and alt tag that point to you. For instance, if the photo is of john smith playing hockey, the filename might be johnsmithhockey.jpg and the alt tag might be “john smith playing hockey”.
Tag photos with metadata. Many photo file formats allow you to include additional information in the file about who took the photo and when, the camera model, what the photo is about, copyright, etcetera. This is called metadata, and one of the most common photo metadata formats is EXIF. Search online for one of the many free EXIF editors and tag your photos with as much relevant information as possible.
Republish key photos. When it comes to text, search engines don’t like to see duplicate content. Photos, on the other hand, work differently. The more often a photo is published in a different context, the more likely it is to show up. Take your best photos and include them on a number of sites.
Link to quality existing photos. If you’ve already got some good photos online that aren’t ranking that well, try linking to them from some of your other sites and reposting the photos (if you own the copyright) to other sites.
Publish continually. It takes time to influence your search results, so you’ll need to keep up any publishing activities over a sustained period of time to make an impact. At a minimum, you should expect to need a couple of months of weekly posts to affect relatively sparse search results. If you’ve got a more competitive profile, you may need to consider a more robust reputation management plan.